It’s been a minute since the Bengals last played a meaningful football game – 252 days on Sunday, to be exact. The NFL offseason is long, and a lot has happened between then and now. Reviewing it all would be a lengthy and redundant exercise, but there are changes that merit rehashing ahead of this week. Particularly regarding the Colts – the Bengals’ Week 1 opponent and among the teams they played in 2017. What’s changed for them since that matchup?
Most notably, quarterback Andrew Luck has returned to the Colts’ lineup after a protracted leave of absence due to injury. That’s a huge strike in the Colts’ favor, regardless of how admirably Jacoby Brissett performed as the starter last season. Luck may not immediately be his former, phenomenal self, but he’s a beacon of optimism for the Colts’ fandom in an offseason that hasn’t produced many others.
Indianapolis enters 2018 led by head coach Frank Reich, a first-time head coach and the team’s second choice for the role after a bizarre sequence of events with Josh McDaniels. As things happened, this left Reich with a partial staff of assistants he didn’t choose already locked in. The Colts’ free agency period was relatively quiet, and their draft, like the Bengals’, consisted of eleven picks. Unlike the Bengals, the Colts’ 2017 roster had a severe deficiency of starting-caliber players.
How many they’ve found, and how much this Colts team has truly improved, remains to be seen. We won’t have to wait much longer to find out.
DOUBTFUL: WR Cody Core (Back)
Also listed: TE Tyler Eifert (Back), S Clayton Fejedelem (Calf), OT Cordy Glenn (Shoulder), CB Tony McRae (Shoulder), LB Vincent Rey (Ankle), TE Mason Schreck (Toe)
OUT: OT/G Denzelle Good (Knee/Wrist)
QUESTIONABLE: OT Anthony Castonzo (Hamstring), RB Marlon Mack (Hamstring)
Also listed: CB Nate Hairston (Hamstring), LB Darius Leonard (Ankle/Chest), WR Zach Pascal (Calf), LB Anthony Walker (Groin)
Of the fifteen NFL games remaining this weekend, only two have closer spreads than this one.
More than any other player on the injury report, the activity of the Colts’ Anthony Castonzo bears watching here. If he’s sidelined, the Colts’ offensive line is bookended by Le’Raven Clark and Joe Haeg. Give the Bengals an early lead, and the Colts’ pass protection will bog their offense down. Those tackles against the Bengals’ pool of edge rushers is potentially the most one-sided matchup in play here.
There are others vying for that honor though, especially on the other side of the ball. The Colts’ cornerbacks – Nate Hairston, Kenny Moore II, Pierre Desir, and Quincy Wilson – are an inexperienced group. Perhaps the new defensive scheme helps them, but it’s unlikely that any are fit to contain A.J. Green at this point. If there’s any isolated coverage on the outside against him or John Ross, it’s a matchup in Cincinnati’s favor.
The middle of this Colts defense might be even weaker. The safeties are alright – they employ 2017 first-round pick Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers there. The two complement each other well on paper, although Hooker is returning from a season-ending knee injury. Linebacker is the major liability – four of the six ‘backers are rookies, with only Darius Leonard being drafted prior to the seventh round. Anthony Walker and Najee Goode, the two veteran starters, aren’t established veteran-starter types. Andy Dalton loves targeting the middle of the field – within ten yards or so, he shouldn’t have much trouble.
Of course, this Colts roster isn’t without strengths. Their interior line – 2018 first-round guard Quenton Nelson, 2016 first-round center Ryan Kelly, and guard Matt Slauson – is a respectable unit. On defense, they have some edge defenders – Jabaal Sheard is coming off an incredible 2017 season, and Tarell Basham and Kemoko Turay are recent high-pedigree draft picks. If the Colts can play from ahead, they have a better chance of winning with a ground attack (especially if Marlon Mack is active) and pass rush than the alternative.
Given, this would require them actually getting ahead. The Colts have a known receiver in T.Y. Hilton, but the cupboard behind him is remarkably questionable. Ryan Grant is the second name down the depth chart. There’s some help at tight end from Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron, but neither are world-beaters. If Luck has some trouble reacquainting himself to live action, this unit won’t beat the Bengals’ passing defense for him.
Altogether, this is a game where the Bengals have a clear route to victory. The NFL is a difficult league to pin down year-to-year, but this seems like a safer bet than many think. If you’re in a pick ’em competition, the Bengals are a road/underdog team worth penciling in.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Colts 17